Dances of Desire by the Tanjavur Quartet

The naayika bhava and sringara rasa are the primary focus of the Tanjavur Quartet varnams. This is explored through storylines of desire that are beautifully human: flawed but imperfect to a perfect degree. The subject of desire, the naayika, and the object of her desire, the naayaka, bring about an irresistible chemistry that overflows with sringara. Over the years, however, the dance of desire has got lost in translation. The original focus on the naayika has now shifted mostly to the object of her desire, the man, elaborating many of his qualities. Today, the so-called “rare” varnams of the Quartet are back in vogue, but when they are performed do the performers really understand the true spirit of these timeless sringara varnams?

If the subject of desire has been erased, what is actually left? Who really then dances the Dance of Desire?

By: Jitendra Krishna | Published by Sathir Dance Art | All Rights Reserved©1996-2018

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the dance compositions of the illustrious nattuvanars, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, formally known as the Tanjavur Quartet (TQ). My fascination grew when I started studying, many years ago, the choreographies for these songs. My initial interest, and later serious research, particularly into the dance Varnams, was to especially discover what moved the composers to write the songs the way they did, and what the actual intentions are behind the songs.

The Tanjavur Quartet were musicians and composers attached to the Tanjavur court during the 19th century. They wrote a treasure trove of dance repertoire exclusively for the court dance, Sadir. The dance compositions were presented by chief courtesans at audience before the Maharaja and his excellencies. The TQ composed, sollukattus, sabdams, padams, javalis, swarajathis, thillanas, and other compositions, but most significant are the exquisite varnams in praise of the courtesan and her lover.

The Sadir to Bharatanatyam transition in the 20th century (court-chamber-theater) resulted in many varnams being erased from the dance repertoire. During this transition, a “new” set of varnams were given a position of prominence for performance. One example is the varnam in raga Sankarabharanam, Manavi and the Varnamalika, Sāmininē Korinanura, which was the last varnam Ponnayya Pillai wrote and was originally set completely in raga Todi. Several other varnams were introduced and continue to be part of today’s margam presentations. Examples of such later introductions are the Sakiye (anandabhairavi), Mohamana (bhairavi), Ati Mogam (sankarabharanam) - all adaptations of the original Telugu compositions; the Tamil lyrics were written by Sangeetha Kalanidhi, K. Ponnaiah Pillai (great-grandson of Tanjavur Sivanandam Pillai). This is to cater to a new breed of spectators and practitioners.

In recent years, the lesser known, so-called “rare” compositions of the TQ have been reintroduced to the margam and are back in vogue. Evenings of dance and sometimes complete festivals are dedicated to the compositions of the TQ and "Sadir". From San Francisco to Chennai, everyone seems to be dancing “rare” TQ compositions. For those of us who made a serious study of dance with a nattuvanar or a noted, long time disciple of a nattuvanar, these varnams were just part of the repertoire taken up during our studies.

My own in-depth study of the TQ varnams, over many decades, which includes learning the varnams from two nattuvanar teachers and a hereditary dancer, has given me this revelation: although the words at first glance appear to be simple, the underlying meaning is deeper, layered, often even mysterious, with the intended message embedded deeply so that it is not unraveled easily by anyone – except by the one to whom it is intended.

The naayika bhava and sringara are the primary focus of the Tanjavur Quartet varnams. This is explored through storylines of desire that are beautifully human: flawed but imperfect to a perfect degree. The subject of desire, the naayika, and the object of her desire, the naayaka, bring about an irresistible chemistry that overflows with sringara. In recent years, however, the underlying meaning (beyond the padartha) of the srinagara varnams has got lost in translation. The original focus on the naayika has now shifted mostly onto the object of her desire, the man, elaborating many of his qualities.

The original inspiration of the varnams–the vibrant court dancer–has now turned into a protagonist who is a completely submissive, fairy-tale caricature of a woman. Someone who surrenders her body and soul at the will of a man. Her waves of desire has now been turned into waves of misery. This interpretation of the varnams is certainly not what was intended when they were written, and therefore, not how I was taught to understand them.
The 'loved and lost' theme in the poetry was never meant to be expressed in dance through a mindless, weak, submissive damsel who waits eternally for an absent man. Yes, the woman pines and is in distress over her absent lover, and who wouldn't be? However, her distress does not lead to her completely withering away!

What the sensuous poetry, the sringara varnam, does embody, through the love stories is the exploration of both body and soul: the connections between sexuality, body and the spirit, the surface beauty and the inner soul.

This is done within a framework that celebrates the brilliance of the courtesan, a strong woman, who, in her turn, extols the virtues of either her lover, the King or a nobleman (who is almost always present in court during the performance) or a deity (imagined to be present). The courtesan makes many passionate pleas of her burning desire for her lover, and the varnams poetically and vividly express those desires. The chief court dancers, some of their names still known today, who made it to an audience before the King, were already strong independent women - dancers, composers, singers, musicians, polymaths, landowners, impresarios, and poets. The court dancer was certainly not a mindless, weak woman pining away over a man!

Most significantly, the sringara varnams are often “tongue-in-cheek”, with witty remarks, humour, subtle sarcasm and innuendo. The King and his excellencies, who listened and watched the dance, would have had full understanding of the underlying layers of meanings. Along with the nattuvanars and court dancers, they were obviously having fun, and quite clearly, they did not take the lyrics, or for that matter they themselves, or the lyrics too seriously!

Is the courtesan's burning desire still relevant today?
Well, do we not all go through those so-called "pangs of separation", when we are not with the one for so long? Have not we all loved and lost? Have we not experienced unrequited love? As long as there are desire, lust, and love in this world, these varnams will be relevant. The challenge, however, lies in capturing and accurately portraying these tensions of both body and soul, sexuality and love. The protagonist in the TQ varnams is meant to be portrayed as a bold, strong woman; someone who is certainly unafraid to express her true sentiments and physical needs.

For the purpose of this writing, I have chosen to examine, at some length, one TQ pada varnam in particular—mōha lāhiri kondēn sāmi—set in ragam Todi and Adi talam and composed by Tanjavur Sivanandam Pillai. Sivanandam was a veena artist, a composer, a singer, dance artist, multi-linguist, as well as an expert in the art of Abhinaya. Sivanandam trained court and temple dancers that included male dancers. Although all four of the Tanjavur Quartet brothers received admiration during their time at the Tanjavur palace, it was clearly Sivanandam who was the favourite of Maharaja Sivaji, ruler of the Tanjavur Maratha dynasty from 1832 to 1855.

Sivanandam and the King had great mutual respect. It is said that the Maharaja would insist on Sivanandam being present during his daily evening walk in the palace garden. During these walks, they would engage not only in lengthy discussions about dance and music, but also in discussions about cuisine, politics, or life in general. If, on any day, Sivanandam did not attend their evening walk, a personal messenger would be sent to enquire of the reason for his absence. Sivanandam thus established a great name for himself and was widely consulted for his knowledge of music and dance during discussions at gatherings of the Maharaja and excellencies.

Sivanandam composed a collection of exquisite varnams, often specifically composed in praise of Maharaja Sivaji. Some of his compositions are, dāni sāti pōti lēdura (Todi), sārasa sikhāmani
(Kalyani), pantamēla (Anandabhairavi) and the unmatched musical and lyrical masterpiece, dānikē in ragam Todi. Sivanandam and Mannargudi Meenakshi, the courtesan who presented the première of Dānikē, were praised so much by the Maharaja that it was stated there was no other varnam equal to this Todi varnam. It is interesting to note that Sivanandam, and most likely Maharaja Sivaji too, had a great attraction towards this particular ragam. We can come to that conclusion because besides the Dānikē and Mōhalāhiri varnam, Sivanandam wrote at least eight additional varnams, as well as other dance items, all in the ragam Todi.

From the 1940s, the legendary dance master, Nattuvanar, Tanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai, a direct descendant of the Tanjavur Quartet (Kittappa Pillai was the great great-grandson of Sivanandam) unearthed compositions of the TQ, and set them to dance for the proscenium stage. One such composition is the Todi varnam—mōha lāhiri kondēn sāmi

In his approach to composing dance for this composition, Kittappa Pillai focused on the human interactions between the lovers: the woman and her longing for him. The varnam explores the intense desire and longing of a court dancer for her apparently absent lover, Rajagopala. She makes many emotional appeals for his return, with the hope of a physical union -  to become one with her beloved.

The verses of the varnam beautifully intertwines the erotic and the spiritual by referencing Vedic beliefs and practices followed in the Tanjavur court at the time. At around a hundred-and-twenty words, the varnam at first glance appears to be simple, but when studied seriously, the beautifully nuanced, layered lyrics make for a varnam of unlimited potential. The subtle layers of underlying meanings can engage a dancer's imagination with many possibilities to showcase the poetry in motion through the art of Abhinaya, hand-gestures and body-language.

For this varnam, Kittappa Pillai insisted on a mid-tempo pace (madhyalaya) continuously from beginning to end. On the other hand, slowing down the varnam, particularly at the sahityam or lyrics of the purvanga, or first half of the composition, after each theermanam (as it is done today) results in adding unwarranted seriousness and dramatics to the words. A faster pace than warranted would equally disturb the message of the varnam.

It is essential to study this varnam, or, for that matter, any other varnam of the TQ, in its entirety, including the last, often-eliminated caranam sahityam, even if the dancer decides not to perform this final stanza. The varnams culminate to a logical climax only in the last caranam. The last caranam often reveals much of the actual intended feelings of the varnam. Although it is not necessary to perform per se the last caranam lyric, by having studied it, the dancer can keep those feelings in mind and thus do justice to the overall message of the varnam.
[text continues below the video]

Some elaborations (beyond literal meaning) of the lyrics of the varnam, mōha lāhiri kondēn sāmi, illustrate the tenets of these songs of desire sung as it were in a lover's paradise:
mōha lāhiri kondēn sāmi mōdi ceyādē metta “Sami! My desire for you has no beginning or end! I can only think of you! My lover, on this full moon evening at the river bank, the night is magic ... The slight cool breeze of the incipient night brushes against my face ... I am intoxicated ... intoxicated with waves of passion! Now that the evening has set in ... flower buds have closed and the wind is cool ... the time is perfect ... I want to make love! I cannot sleep the night alone with your gentle touch on my mind ... The spirit of desire has unleashed a fragrant Ashoka upon my bosom ... What shall I do now? Ecstasy has filled my mind ... and I am trembling with desire ... I keep on hearing the sound of your ankle bells in the distance of the forest ... thinking you have come to meet me ... My eyes long to see you, even if just for a minute ... It has been a long, long time ... but I have memorised your golden face ... and the first time that you touched me ... was I prone to misery? The first time that you kissed me ... am I blessed by the mystery of your lips? The last time that you touched me ... how much sorrow can I take? Was it heaven that led me to you? I cannot say ... Oh my lover, shall I no longer believe? Was our passion just a sad and sorry dream? Is the night to be tragic, without you to share it? Am I cursed by the love I received? Now tell me, why do you pretend to be otherwise engaged? ... has this desire separated us? Shall I find no other if this love is over? No other lover can compare to you ... but my loveliness is incomparable in the universe! I am no ordinary woman! As you are right for me, I am certainly right for you! We have wasted already so many days ... I do not longer want to argue with my desire! Give me a sign ... or else what difference does your indifference make?"
nāgarīgalōlā nannaya mākrupālā nī ganashree rājagōpālā nīta vēda gīta nātan nī tāndā “My loverboy, King of mischief! My beau! Oh gracious lad of dakshina dvārakā ... Celebrated by all! Now do not think you are unbeknownst to me, compassionate King! I have dreamt of you even before you came into my life! Long ago, when our time was new ... we kissed ... was it fair to walk away? Even if for one last time can I taste the sweet nectar of your full delicious lips? Or are your kisses no longer mine? Oh my beloved ... the mesmerizing sound of your bansuri has even the humming beez in a trance! Spellbound by desire we danced the night away ... but now our passion has made me restless ... remember ... you are mine alone! We are not separated ... I have to tell the world!” vāsa māmalar mēdai thanil oyilāy iru manathil kapatenna coll iru tanamisai navakalabha madiyanin isāipāda vilaiyāda nithamumthāda...mōha lāhiri kondēn sāmi mōdi ceyādē metta... "I dreamt of you in this secret bower filled with creepers ... asleep on a bed of lotus leaves and garlands ... I want our dance of romance to never end ... If only I could have you like this every night! I woke up thrilled, but while I slept your promise was unkept ... I am still alone and consumed by my longing for you ... My king of kings, bedecked with precious gems of the crescent moon ... I am overcome by intense desire ... cares my bosom and make love to me ... Come and rest beside me ... my compassionate lover ... I have to understand the distance betwixt us ... tell me what is the murmur in your mind ... is it something unfavourable to me? Barely touching each other ... while we should be one! Or are we loving strangers? Beneath the stars and the moon ... I do not want to sit here wasting my time ... I do not want to think back of us with indifference! What I feel for you has become unbearable, king of my heart ... Assuming you do not belong to another ... come thither and give me your kiss of life! I am intoxicated ... Intoxicated with waves of passion! Oh Sami, what am I to do now? Give me a sign ... Or else what difference does your indifference make?”

All rights reserved © 2018 
Sathir Dance Art Trust
The Article:
“Dances of Desire by the 
Tanjavur Quartet” 
may not be reproduced, re-published, cached or otherwise used in any form, without the prior written permission of the author:
Jitendra Krishna [Hirschfeld]
“Dances of Desire by the Tanjavur Quartet” –first published in 2008– is part of the documentation of around 45 varnams. A 'Blueprint' of the Tanjavur Quartet songs was shared with me by: Nattuvanar, Tanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai (1913-1999). The legendary dance master was an authority on the Tanjavur Quartet repertoire, the interpretation and inner meanings of the poetry. The late Rajamani Mohan, a senior disciple of Kittappa Pillai, provided me with archival documents with interpretations of lesser known Tanjavur Quartet varnams which were part of her repertoire during her initial learning of Sadir. Additional Acknowledgements:
Pandanainallur Subbaraya Pillai
Pandanainallur Gopalakrishnan Pillai.